Won on a penalty shoot-out after a dreary goalless draw with Italy, USA 1994 is Brazil’s least glamorous World Cup conquest – but maybe also the most underrated.
The excessive heat in which the final was played, at the end of a gruelling campaign, was clearly a factor in the disappointing final. Italy centre-back Franco Baresi rushed back from a knee operation during the tournament to play superbly in the final, until, exhausted, he missed in the shoot-out. A few years later, both coaches agreed that, in the conditions in which the final was played, Baresi’s display showed that it was better to be injured than tired.
The Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, was the quiet hero of the 1994 triumph. He had to do it the hard way. On route to the USA, Brazil suffered their first ever defeat in World Cup qualification, and had to endure a nervous wait until the last match to secure their place. Parreira was vilified – he later described the treatment of the national coach by the Brazilian media as “inhumane,” and stepped down as soon as the tournament ended.
His achievement was to carry Brazilian football out of the confusion that had reigned since the golden age ended with elimination by Holland in 1974. How to cope with the new, dynamic threat of the northern Europeans? In 1978 Brazil tried to imitate the Dutch. In 1982, and to a lesser extent 1986, they were at their most romantically fluid but went down to glorious defeats. In 1990 they went the other way, embracing the pragmatism of a sweeper system and crashing out after scoring just four goals in four games.
Parreira had been on the staff as a physical preparation specialist in 1970, and he looked back in order to move forward. He reverted to the back four which had underpinned the triumphs of old, and sought to construct a possession based team with a healthy balance between attack and defence.
It helped that, agile and calm, Taffarel was the best keeper Brazil had produced. And that there was an embarrassment of centre-back riches. Brazil lost their top three central defenders to injury, two on the eve of the tournament, the other in the opening game. And they still were able to form a fine partnership. Aldair, who had not even been included in the original squad, was immaculate, and alongside him Marcio Santos hit form at the right time.
They were well protected by an efficient midfield. Mauro Silva was poise and intelligence personified in the holding role, and alongside him Dunga had developed his passing skills, adding crisp distribution to his tough tackling. But there was a lack of flair. Zinho on the left never quite hit their heights that were expected of him. And the captain Rai, such an elegant player on form, was struggling for fitness and lost his place to the functional Mazinho. A penalty from Rai in the opening game was the only goal scored by the midfielders in the competition.
The burden, then, was on the two strikers – who complemented each other wonderfully. Sleek and mobile, Bebeto scored three times. Romario, the stocky master of the restricted spaces of the penalty area, scored five and was the star of the tournament.
This was a triumph for Parreira’s man-management. Notoriously selfish, Romario’s constant quest for privileges within the group made him hard to handle. Brazil left him out until the decisive qualifier at home to Uruguay, when he was magnificent. Then, during the World Cup he was roomed with the combative Dunga, and took on board the message that immortality was in his grasp if he just knuckled down for a few weeks. By his own admission the final was not his game, but he found the net in all but two of Brazil’s seven matches, improvising clever finishes on the ground and even, such as the only goal in the semi-final against Sweden, with his head, nodding home a cross from excellent right-back Jorginho.
That was another disappointing game, against an opponent who in the heat was unwilling to put Brazil under pressure. There had been more drama in the previous two rounds. After coasting through the group phase Brazil’s second round opponents were the hosts, a USA side inspired by playing the big game on July 4. Brazil were a man down after left back Leonardo was sent off, and a tight, tense game was only decided by a high-speed combination from the strike pair which ended with a neatly taken Bebeto goal.
The quarter-final against Holland appeared to be going to plan when Brazil opened up a two-goal lead – sweet revenge for Parreira, who had been on the coaching staff in 1974. But the defence suffered its only crisis of the campaign, collapsing in the air and allowing the Dutch to draw level.
Then an unlikely hero emerged. Reserve left back Branco had widely been seen as over the hill. Injury-prone, he was a controversial choice for his third World Cup. With the form of Leonardo, though, he was not expected to play. Then came Leonardo’s suspension and Branco’s opportunity. When the game against Holland could have been drifting away, he turned the tide and decided matter with one of his long-range free-kicks.
Being part of a World Cup winning team was the perfect way for Branco to end his international career. Brazil, though, were just getting started. They had brought to an end a vexing 24-year wait to win title No.4 – during which time they were forced to watch two triumphs for Argentina.
Now they had their confidence back. USA 1994 was the first of three consecutive World Cup final appearances. And on the bench in the States was a skinny 17-year-old by the name of Ronaldo who was destined to play a central role in the next two.